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The Pawn Game

The watch must have come off when she hit the ground. It was a nice one, too – a Bulova. See, that’s why I even saw her in the first place. I noticed it lying there on the street. You don’t see Bulovas just anywhere. When I went over to pick up the watch, I could just see her hand and part of her arm showing from behind the dumpster. I didn’t want to go any closer. There was no way I was going to get mixed up in it if someone was dead. I’m not heartless, though. She was somebody’s sister, or girlfriend, or something. So, I went down a couple of blocks and found an open bar. The guy there let me use their telephone when I told him mine was dead. I called the cops and told them about the body, but I didn’t give my name.

My next stop was Rusty Brader’s place. He’s got a pawn and loan shop not too far away.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and it looks like even less from the inside. But I like Rusty. He’s a pretty good guy. When I got to the shop, I pulled open the door, and heard the ‘door open’ chime go. Just because Rusty’s got a small shop doesn’t mean he’s stupid. There’s an alarm system, cameras, the whole thing. Rusty looked up from his computer screen and gave me a grin.
‘Kevin! How are you, man?’
‘I’m good. You?’
‘Good. You got something for me?’
‘Yeah, I do. And I really think it’s worth something.’

Rusty raised an eyebrow. He’s used to me bringing him old CDs that no-one listens to, that kind of thing. When I first got laid off, what I sold him was worth some money. You know, my extra TV, my video camera, and a few other electronics. But it’s been a while since I’ve had anything good. I still come in whenever I’ve got something, though. I found a part-time job, but it’s retail and pays nothing. The pawn thing helps me get closer to making ends meet.

‘Let’s take a look,’ Rusty said. He reached out his bear paw of a hand, and I pulled the watch out of my pocket. The light in the shop isn’t very good, even on sunny days, so Rusty turned on the jeweler’s lamp that he keeps behind the counter. He spread the watch out under the lamp and looked at it for a long time. Then, he turned it over and looked at the back of it.
‘Where’d you get this?’ he asked.
‘I found it on the street.’ It was weird Rusty even asked where I got the watch. Usually he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Now, he gave me a strange look. I didn’t blame him, either. How many people drop expensive watches on the street like that?
‘Swear to God, that’s where it was,’ I said, holding up my right hand, palm towards him. He shrugged, muttered something I couldn’t make out, and looked at the watch again. Finally, he nodded.

For the next few minutes, we talked about the price. He started at fifty dollars. I started at five hundred. We shook hands at one seventy-five, and I was on my way. I know, he’s better at this than I am. But one seventy-five is the electricity paid, plus a little extra.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and caught the news break. One of the stories was about the body behind the dumpster.  They said her name was Camilla Brader. Something about that name was familiar. Then it hit me. Brader’s not an unusual name, but still, I wondered if she and Rusty were related. I was just about to look up the pawn shop’s number when I heard a knock. Two policemen were at the door.

‘Are you Kevin Marshall?’ one of them asked.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ I said. What were they doing here? Of course! The watch. But wait? How the hell could they know I’d found it and taken it to Rusty’s shop? And, anyway, where’s the crime? I swallowed hard. ‘What’s this about?’
‘Do you know someone named Camilla Brader?’

The next hour or so was a blur. I didn’t know the dead woman – never heard of her. But it turned out she was Rusty’s wife (poor guy!). No wonder he’d acted funny about the watch. But still, why wouldn’t he just ask me what I was doing with his wife’s watch? I tried to explain the whole thing, but the cops wouldn’t listen to me. They kept asking more and more and more questions.  Finally, they left. I poured myself a double shot of some cheap whisky I had and sat down to think. After about a half hour, I tried to call Rusty at the shop, but nobody answered. No big surprise there, if he’d just found out his wife was dead.

The police came back the next morning. This time, they didn’t waste a lot of time asking me questions. They took me down to the station, saying they had new evidence they wanted to discuss with me.
‘What new evidence?’
‘Your financial situation. We hear you’ve been pawning a lot lately. So, you saw someone wearing a good watch, and you went for it. Maybe you meant to kill her, maybe not. But it happened.’
‘What? That’s crazy! I told you. I found the watch! She was already dead.’

When we got to the station, the police took me to an interview room. On our way there, we saw Rusty coming in the other direction.
‘Rusty! My God! I am so sorry to hear –’
‘You’re sorry? You’re sorry? You goddamned murderer! You killed my wife!’ He made a move for me, but one of the cops held him back.
‘I didn’t kill anyone!’
Rusty made another move, but he stopped himself. As he turned away, I saw him smile.
He was smiling? What the hell?
‘Rusty! What the hell did you do to me?’ I yelled as the police practically frog-marched me to the interview room.

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Coming Home

No, this isn’t one of my fiction stories. It’s real. It’s not about crime fiction, either, so do feel free to move on to your next blog visit if you wish.

The ‘we will be landing soon’ announcement crackled over the plane’s PA system. The baby stirred a little as I picked her up from where she’d been sleeping next to me. I had no idea how she’d do in this new country of hers. They’d told me that she might find it hard to get used to the water here. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the same kind of formula she’d been used to drinking. I had no idea what that might do to her digestion.

Getting used to the climate would be a challenge for her, too. It was February – short-sleeve weather where she was born, but sometimes bitterly cold where we were going. And all she had was one small suitcase. In it was the only toy of her own that she’d brought with her – a small stuffed bear. At least she was healthy – they’d told me that, too, and she certainly seemed to be. And I was determined to give her the best life I could in her new world.

When the plane finally taxied to the gate, I stood up, still holding the baby, and stretched. My clothes and nerves were rumpled from the long flight, and now I was going to have to face getting myself, a baby, and two suitcases from this plane to the plane that would take us to our final destination.

There was one major hurdle: Customs and Immigration. The thing was, the baby wasn’t a US citizen. I am, but I had no idea what I was going to do about getting us both through Passport Control. There were only two options: the ‘US Citizens’ lane, and the ‘Non-US Citizens’ lane. I worried that, if I chose the wrong one, they’d take her away. I couldn’t imagine being separated from my child. I took a deep breath, settled the baby into her child carrier, tightened my grip on the suitcases, and moved towards the ‘US Citizens’ lane.

When it was my turn, I showed the Passport Control officer my own passport, which he stamped perfunctorily. Then, I asked him about the baby, who had a different passport. His expression changed slightly, and he looked at her, then more closely at me.  ‘You’ll have to go to the Immigration waiting room,’ he said.

After we’d gotten through Passport Control, I started looking for the Immigration waiting room. I didn’t know where it was, as there weren’t any signs pointing to it. Within about five minutes, I was completely disoriented. I was also exhausted, hungry, and concerned about the baby, who was just as hungry and tired of it all as I was.

Finally, I saw a door marked ‘Exit.’ That door, I knew, would lead me out of the airport, and I couldn’t do that. They’d told me I would need to apply for an entry visa – what used to be called a ‘Green Card’ – for my daughter, and that I’d have to get a stamp at our port of entry.

Completely befuddled, and getting more and more concerned, I finally flagged down an airline representative. He took one look at us, disheveled, weary, and confused, and very kindly helped us find the room we needed.

Then came the next step: the visa. The Immigration waiting room was large and utilitarian, filled with long rows of government-building plastic seats – the kind you see at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, and places like that. I had no idea what I was supposed to do once I got to the room. There were no signs, and no-one right there to answer questions. There wasn’t very much pleasantness, either. The other people who were waiting were talking quietly among themselves in dozens of different languages. They had their own issues and weren’t paying any attention to me. The officials behind the long front counter were busily staring at their computers.

I wasn’t sure what my next step should be, but I knew one thing: I was going to get my daughter and me through this mess and onto our next flight. So, I went up to the front counter. There were no ‘take a number’ signs, so I approached one of the officials.

He looked up at me with one of those impassive, ‘government employee’ expressions. I was not encouraged. Everything changed, though, when I explained my situation in American English. With a ‘Can I help you?’ smile, he asked me for the baby’s passport, my passport, and the adoption paperwork. My stomach churned for a moment as I fumbled for everything. What if I’d forgotten something? What if they wouldn’t let me keep her? I let out a slow breath when I found the stash of papers.

The Immigration official looked at everything, then at us. Then he stamped the baby’s passport and explained to me that we would receive an official ‘Green Card’ in a few weeks. In the meantime, he said, the passport stamp would serve as her visa. ‘Don’t lose it,’ he warned me. If I did, he said, we would have no proof that she was legally in the country.

Fortunately, my story ended well. My baby and I got onto our connecting flight with no problem, landed at our destination, and got on with our lives. The adoption paperwork was completed both in the US and in my daughter’s country of birth, and she is now a US citizen – has been almost all of her life. We went through that process, too. But throughout it all, I worried that things would go horribly wrong. Mostly, I worried that I might lose my child. And I had a lot of advantages (I speak the dominant language, I’m a US citizen, and, while no-one would confuse me with a rich person, my husband and I had the means for a safe trip). I cannot imagine how frightening entering this country must be for someone with a small child or children, but who doesn’t have those advantages.

People who are fleeing, sometimes for their own lives, have enough troubles, especially if they are bringing children with them. When they get to their destination, a humane society will provide them with a safe place to stay, help from someone who speaks their language, and a humane, dignified system for settling their official status, so that they can start over. A humane society will not separate them from their children. A humane society will not punish children while their parents work through the system. A humane society will not make the immigration system so complicated, expensive and difficult that it can’t be negotiated unless one has money and a good lawyer.

As I look at what’s going on in the news, I cannot help but think how inhumane and unnecessary it is to tear families apart. There are other ways to settle official status without forcibly taking children from their parents. Research and common humanity show us that children who are taken from their families are more apt to suffer from all sorts of consequences. So are their parents. To me, this forced removal of children is cruel and unethical, and it’s wrong on many levels. Many of the people affected by this policy have no voice. But I do. And I choose to use it.

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Crime Fiction News Break


 

Links You’ll Want 
 

Petrona Award

Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Arthur Ellis Awards

Crime Cymru

Lise McClendon Literary Salon at Berkeley

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Change of Grade

From: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley. [vworsley@tilton.edu]
Re: My Grade

Professor Worsley,

I am very concerned about my final grade in your class. You did not give me a passing grade, even though I turned in my assignments. I have gotten top grades in all of my classes, this is the first class where I didn’t get an A. I hope you will consider my hard work and that i did turn in my assignments and change my grade.

Colin Drake

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Dear Colin,

Thanks for your note. I can understand your concern about your grade. You did turn in your assignments; however, as I mentioned in the feedback, most of them were not complete. Incomplete assignments do not receive full credit. If you have questions about what was expected for each assignment, you may wish to review the rubrics that I provided at the beginning of the course. Please let me know if you have other questions.

Regards,

Victor Worsley
 

From: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Professor Worsley,

I did read the rubrics. But i turned in my assignments and i worked very hard in class. I think my hard work should be worth points and i should not be docked just because I missed some things on the assignments. Please change my grade.

Colin Drake

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Dear Colin,

Thanks for your note. School policy does not allow changes of grade except for very specific situations, such as work being submitted, but not receiving a grade. That didn’t happen in your case, so your grade cannot be changed. You’re welcome to consult the Tilton catalogue if you have questions about grade change policies.

Regards,

Victor Worsley

 

From: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

So can I turn in the other parts of my assignments now and get points?

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Dear Colin,

Thanks for your note. Our course has ended, and final grades have been submitted. So, at this point, no new work can be turned in. Please let me know if you have other questions.

Regards,

Victor Worsley

 

From: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

This isn’t fair, I need an A. If I fail this course i could lose my student loan and then what am i supposed to do? I’ll be on academic probation, too, i don’t want that to happen. There has to be something you can do.

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Dear Colin,

Thanks for your note. I’m sorry to hear of your situation, but there isn’t anything I can do at this point. The class will be offered again in the fall term, and you can re-take it then. My understanding is that if you do, your grade in that class will replace the grade you got in this one. I hope this is helpful.

Regards,

Victor Worsley

 

From: Colin Drake [colin.drake@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
Re: RE: My Grade

Its not helpful at all. I’ll still be on academic probation. If you don’t do something to fix this i can make big trouble for you.

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Andrew Coughlin [acoughlin@tilton.edu]
Fwd: Re: RE: My Grade

Hi, Andy,

I’ve got a situation with a student that I think could be a problem. Could you read the email string and see what you think would be the best choice? I’d be glad of your input.

Thanks,

Vic
 

From: Andrew Coughlin [acoughlin@tilton.edu]
To: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
RE:  Fwd: Re: RE: My Grade

Hi, Vic,

I can see why you’re concerned. Why not set up a meeting with the student? I can mediate, and maybe we can figure something out. If we can’t, we can at least connect him with Student Services or something.

Take care,

Andy

 

From: Victor Worsley [vworsley@tilton.edu]
To: Andrew Coughlin [acoughlin@tilton.edu]
RE:  Fwd: Re: RE: My Grade

Thanks, Andy! I’ll set it up.

Vic

 

Three o’clock. Right on time, Victor thought as he heard the footsteps. He wasn’t sure exactly how he could help Colin Drake, but at least with Andy’s help, he might be able to de-escalate the situation. And it wasn’t as though he wanted the kid to lose student loan money. His hands were tied, that was all.

The footsteps in the hall got closer. It was taking a long time for Colin to find his office door. The back of Victor’s neck prickled a bit as he listened. He was being ridiculous, he knew. But Colin had been pretty angry, and you heard those stories about students losing it. He shook his head, annoyed with himself for feeling uneasy. Then came the soft knock on the door.

‘Come in,’ Victor called. The door creaked open.
‘I’m glad you could make it,’ Victor said without looking up.
‘No problem,’ came the answer. Then Victor did look up.

Seven minutes later, Colin Drake rushed frantically past the department secretary as he headed towards the building’s exit.
‘What was that?’ she asked.
‘Who knows?’ Andy Coughlin answered. He smiled to himself just a little as he got the rest of the memos, reminders and advertisements out of his department post box. It had been easy. He’d gotten to the meeting just before that kid did. There was no way that goddamned Victor Worsley was going to edge him out for Department Chair. And that stupid kid was the perfect patsy. Andy’d seen the emails. Colin was pissed off, right at the scene, and who’d be able to be sure those weren’t his hands around Vic’s neck?

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I’ll be Hiding in the Darkness With My Beer*

Police and other professional investigators know that they aren’t always going to get the information they need by having people come to the police station or other offices. People may not want it known that they’re cooperating with law enforcement officials. Or, they may have other reasons for keeping their distance (at least in public) from an investigation (What if, for instance, a married person becomes a witness to a crime in a hotel, because of being there with a lover?).

But the information those reluctant witnesses may be able to provide can be critical. So, police know that they sometimes have to depend on much more informal meetings. Whether it’s an informant, a witness, or someone else who may shed light on a crime, good detectives sometimes meet with people at a pub, a café, or another informal place.

It happens in crime fiction, just as it does in real life. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone says the killer is her lodger, James Bentley, and the evidence supports that. In fact, he’s been convicted of the crime, and is due to be executed. As Poirot looks into the matter, he gets information on Bentley, his background, and so on. And that includes a visit to Bentley’s most recent employer, Breather & Scuttle, a real estate firm. Mr. Scuttle isn’t much help, not least because he doesn’t want the company’s image tarnished. But Maude Williams, who works at the office, overhears Poirot’s conversation with Scuttle. Later, she finds Poirot at the Blue Cat Café, and has a private, informal conversation with him. He learns some interesting things about the company and about Bentley, and it’s clear that Maude Williams wants very much to help clear Bentley’s name if she can. She turns out to be a valuable ally to Poirot.

In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Inspector Jack Laidlaw and his team get a heartbreaking case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco. Her body is later found in Kelvingrove Park, and it’s established that she was raped and murdered. Laidlaw, of course, wants to find out who the killer is, but he’s also smart enough to know that plenty of people won’t talk to ‘the polis,’ especially not in a formal, at-the-station, way. So, he takes a different approach. He makes contact with John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the body was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it happens. If he doesn’t want something to happen, it will stop happening, or it won’t start in the first place. Rhodes holds court in a pub called The Gay Laddie, and that’s where Laidlaw meets with him. It’s not that Rhodes is such a fan of the coppers, but he has his own code of ethics. Part of that is that women and children are to be left alone. So, when he hears that a young woman was raped and killed, he’s willing to use his sources to find out what he can. And he proves to be a valuable source of information.

There’s also Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread of this novel, Brighton and Hove Police Superintendent Roy Grace and his team have just gotten a new charge. International superstar Gaia Lafayette and her entourage will be coming to Brighton to do a film. This will mean a great deal of added security will be needed, especially given that the superstar’s life has already been threatened. Then, Grace gets a call from an informant named Darren Spicer, a career criminal who’s been in prison more often than he’s been out. Grace and Spicer meet at the Crown and Anchor, where Spicer tells Grace that he’s been hired to break into Gaia Lafayette’s hotel suite. The background information he provides to Grace is helpful, and it wouldn’t be easily obtained through a visit to the police station.

Fans of Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins will know that he gets most of his information informally. He meets with people in bars, cafés, and other such places, and doesn’t have a formal office of his own. People who want to hire him meet with him just as informally.

The same is true of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. On the one hand, there are several differences, both in terms of personality and in terms of life circumstances, between Scudder and Easy Rawlins. On the other hand, both men start by doing more or less informal investigations. Both men meet clients and informants in informal places and ways. Neither man has an ‘official’ office. Fans of the PI novel, especially the ‘hardboiled’ PI novel, can tell you that there are plenty of other examples in that sub-genre of PIs who use bars/pubs as meeting places, rather than people’s homes or offices.

Informal meetings at pubs/bars, cafés, or other such places can yield all sorts of valuable information. So, police and PIs sometimes use that approach to finding out what they need to know. These are only a very few examples. I know you’ll think of many more than I ever could.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Zanzibar.

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